Last year THE JOHNSON MOUNTAIN BOYS turned Washington's bluegrass tables upside down by putting out a brilliant debut album anchored in the classic tradition of the Stanley and Monroe brothers, Flatt and Scruggs and other genre greats.
They did it in a bluegrass capital best known for its progressive bands, the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene. "Walls of Time," the group's follow-up, shows that the Johnson Mountain Boys are not hiding behind the walls of tradition, but instead are providing a doorway that opens in both directions.
The reverence for classic bluegrass is evident in heartfelt readings of A.P. Carter's maudlin "Just Another Broken Heart," Pee Wee Lambert's anguished paean to "The Weary Hobo" and the a capella gospel harmonies of the Chestnut Grove Quartet's "Tell Me What You Think of My Lord." But while the haunting "Mother's Voice Is in the Wind" sounds like vintage Carter Stanley, and "Darlin' I'm Coming Home" is speedy Jimmy Martin-style bluegrass, those songs, plus three others, are the work of guitarist and lead and tenor singer Dudley Connell. Connell has absorbed the musical and emotional integrity of early bluegrass -- high, strong leads mixed with intricate harmony singing; vivid but not exploitative instrumentals; an occasionally fatalistic view of life -- and lovingly recast them as a sweat-polished, living antique.
The vocals are beautifully arranged and the hard-driving picking is exemplary, with Richard Underwood on banjo, David McLaughlin on mandolin and Eddie Stubbs on fiddle swirling around Connell's crisp guitar. Listen particularly to "Johnson Mountain Chimes," an instrumental reviving another '50s tradition, banjo harmonics. In their time, Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley have encountered hundreds of imitators; they can rest assured, for in the Johnson Mountain Boys, they have skilled and sterling successors whose kudos has also come the old-fashioned way -- earned.
"Calm the Storm" and "Rocking on the Waves" are two bows to the gospel quartet tradition on QUICKSILVER's "Quicksilver Rides Again," but this new album from the Doyle Lawson-led quartet is firmly in the newgrass style pioneered by the Seldom Scene. There's a hint of Lawson's tenure with the Country Gentlemen in the high vocals on Carter Stanley's "Lonesome River," but the band seems most comfortable on material like Don Williams' "Till the Rivers All Run Dry," a mournful and languid pop-country tune ripe for bluegrass adoption.
The incisive picking and crisp, high- spirited singing that have become Quicksilver's trademark are evident throughout the album, beautifully recorded (as was "Walls of Time") at Bias Recording in Springfield. Lawson remains an awesome mandolin player, and banjoman Terry Baucom gets more impressive with each outing. Best cut: Mike Cross' "Kentucky Song," a child of "Country Roads" that seems perfect for an "I Love Kentucky" television commercial.
Less impressive are home-made offerings from two other local bands, FOGGY BOTTOM and BILL ROUSE AND THE UPTOWN GRASS BAND, both rooted in the easy-listening bluegrass lounge circuit. "Waiting For the Sunrise," despite anemic sound quality, is the more faithful; it also benefits from some spry guest mandolin and guitar by Akira Otsuka of the Grass Menagerie. There's a pair of Dillards chestnuts ("Old Man at the Mill" and "Dooley"), dollops of country (Hank Williams and Don Gibson) and some decently played rags ("Panhandle" and "Steel Guitar"). Rouse's banjo is busy but not particularly bright, while Mark Baker's dobro shows he's a student, not a peer, of Mike Auldridge.
Foggy Bottom's "Old Flames" is a bit cleaner, but every bit as much of a grab-bag: the Dillards' "Hey Boys," Loggins and Messina's "Watching the River Flow," Ralph Stanley's "Darkest Hour" and three undistinguished originals. There is some proficient picking from Dan Curtis on mandolin, but for the most part competence is the keyword. Lead singer Karen Belanger's husky voice is more suited to pop, while the group vocals are saccharine and bland, at least on vinyl. Good cuts include Utah Phillips' beautiful "Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia" and a fiery instrumental, "Dixie."